On August 18th my friend, Erik C. Banks, passed away suddenly of a hemorrhagic stroke. Erik was one of the most interesting people I have ever met, and one of the most intellectually curious, generous and kindest as well. He was a professor of philosophy, with a passion for the history of science, physics, art, Kantian ethics, leftist politics, and science fiction. He was only 47, and when I learned about his passing the day after he left us, I was filled with a visceral anger at the injustice of the universe. The last time I had spoken to him we were arguing over Thomas Kuhn and I figured we would be arguing about things until he was an elderly man. I take a tiny solace that he might live on through his academic work and his science fiction stories.
The prevailing feeling that I get from a sudden untimely death is an awareness of its utter senselessness. Erik Banks was beloved, not just by me, but by his colleagues and students as well. He had given us so much, but there was still so much more that he had to give. His academic work was starting to gain some recognition and he had a genuine talent as a writer of fiction as well. Even worse, future students will be deprived of the passion and insight he brought to his teaching of philosophy.
In literature, an untimely death such as his is usually cloaked in some kind of meaning. His death would serve as a lesson, or be a noble sacrifice. Death in literature is subservient to create a fictional world that makes sense, has clear cause and effect, and is moved forward by the trajectory of something called a plot. In reality, this kind of death stands as only another sign of our universe’s cold indifference to us. If there is a lesson, it is that we can go at any moment and that we could lose anybody we love just as quickly.
I take the title of this blog post from Hamlet, but Shakesphere’s approach to death has always been within the artifice of drama. Looking throughout the history of literature, honest portrayals of death are incredibly rare. Oscar Wilde once said, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.” This was a reference to the novel The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens and a dig at the author for his famous sentimentality. Sentimentality makes us feel better, but it really is meant to distract us from the harshness of death.
John Irving’s novel The World According To Garp is about a protagonist who is obsessed with death taking away those he loves. He buys a house that has been hit by a plane because it has been “pre-disastered” and therefore he finds it less likely it will experience a second such event. Despite this, people in his life do die, but in the world of the novel these deaths come as direct results of plot elements set up earlier. Two deaths in particular could be seen as some kind of divine punishment for the actions of certain characters. While Garp wrestles with the anxiety of death it does not give us a wholly honest portrayal of how grief is experienced.
The novels of Cormac McCarthy are filled with death and violence, but there are often subservient to the mechanics of the plot as well. The Road gives us an apocalyptic landscape where death is a constant companion, but there are still noble sacrifices and dramatic plot reversals. Blood Meridian concerns us merely with the perpetrators of violence, not the consequences of their actions. Child of God is about a necrophiliac but the subject of death itself is secondary to the taboo being broken. McCarthy’s masterpiece, Suttree, has a death that seems purely senseless but it still is used to fill in the backstory of the protagonist, who we learn about in only maddeningly vague terms.
Alice Sebold’s massive bestseller, The Lovely Bones, has an original approach to the conventional ghost story. Told from the point of view of a girl who has been murdered, it contrasts the traditional plot of the ghost who cannot let go of life, with the living not being able to let go of their grief. Though well-reviewed upon its original release, its success with the masses has made it a target for nitpicking snobs, but really Sebold’s approach lays bare the fundamentals of the ghost story and why it appeals to us on such an elemental level. It also gives us a buffer when dealing with death on the most honest level, both its status as a ghost story and mystery elements bring in artificial plot structures that keep the effects of grief at arm’s length.
Thinking of novels that have dealt with an untimely death in the way it really feels, it is odd that the only one I can think of is a children’s book, Bridge to Terabithia, written by Katherine Paterson. The book approaches the subject of death, not as a plot device and motivation for the main character, or as merely a pretense to develop a character, but as a truly senseless event. The book’s value, and the fact that it remains so widely read, is that it teaches children about death honestly and without fantastic elements. In fact, it contrasts the reality of death with the kinds of children’s fantasy that authors like C. S. Lewis create.
Of course, there are other works which deal with the idea of mortality. The Death of Ivan Ilyich was written by Leo Tostoy right after his fiftieth birthday and his conversion to Christianity and was published in 1886. His own death was probably a subject that was much on Tolstoy’s mind; being fifty years old made one an old man in his time. Ivan Ilyich is forty-five years old, and lives a carefree life until he becomes ill. Slowly, it dawns on him that he is dying, and the novella deals with his thoughts about his death and his own suffering.
Simone De Beauvoir wrote another honest account of death in her memoir A Very Easy Death. She tells the story of her mother’s death from cancer, and paints a portrait that is free of sentimentality. Her mother was a devoted Catholic and at one point she admonishes those that doubted her mother’s faith because she never asked for a priest. Beauvoir writes that the reason her mother never asked was because she had never intended to die, comparing it to people who say her own work will mean that she will live on past her death. “Whether you think of it as heavenly or as earthly, if you love life immortality is no consultation for death.”
A more recent honest portrayal of death comes from another memoir. In 2008, David Shields published The Thing About Life Is One Day You’ll Be Dead. Sheilds is a polarizing writer and often an acquired taste but this is one of his best works, starting by contrasting his daughter’s, his and his then ninety year old father’s life. Exiting early life, we leave his daughter behind. The book then bounces back from David and his father, until we reach fifty and the book continues to be about his father alone.
Sheild’s takes a postmodern approach to the subject, as he usually does, but here it suits the book he is trying to write. Peppered into the biographical bits are assorted facts about death and aging, as well as famous last words. The problem with books about death is the subject cannot help but always escape our grasp, due to the fact that all books written about death are by authors who were at the time very much alive.
People often talk about “universal experiences” but death is the only experience that I think is really fully universal. Every one of us will die, regardless if whether we live long enough to lose those around us that we love. Some people say all literature is about death. Margaret Atwood, in her memoir Negotiating With The Dead, writes that it is because if their mortality that all writers write. I have my own thoughts about that.
First off, it is like Beauvoir said. Her books cannot substitute for the love of life, just as reading the works of my friend can be a substitute to having him here with us. Then, there is how much artifice literature covers death with in order to disguise its presence. That might be its ultimate purpose like so many other things human beings do. The work that asks us to stare it in the face are rare. This is because it is a throughly unpleasant thing that we do not want to face it until we have to. Better to be distracted from it than anything else.
As I write this, I am reading the work that my friend left behind. It is the only way I have to communicate with him, after taking for granted that we would have years of conversations yet to come. This is my link to him, his work, his passions left written on the page. Ultimately, all we really want is to communicate. With the dead, literature is the closest thing we can have to a conversation.